“Caress the detail, the divine detail.”
Vladimir Nabokov, Russian novelist and short story writer
Find the telling detail
There are two kinds of details: realistic and telling.
“If someone is bald, that’s realistic detail,” writes narrative nonfiction author Lauren Kessler. “If someone chooses to deal with baldness by getting $3,000 hair implants, that’s a status detail. It is a particular that offers insight into character.”
We want more of the latter and less of the former. Your details should, as Donald M. Murray writes in Writing to Deadline, “support the action and meaning of the story.”
Outer details reveal inner character.
For Full Court Press, Kessler’s book about women’s college sports, she noted the head coach’s hands:
“Her nails were perfectly shaped and always — even when she was dressed in sweats and her size 11 Nikes — professionally manicured. That’s status detail. It reflects a choice she made and offers insight into the care she took to preserve her femininity in the masculine world of sports. It is a small detail that illuminates larger values.”
In An Object of Beauty, Steve Martin reveals inner character through outward appearance:
“His skin was mottled red, sanded to a shine by one too many chemical peels.”
And a Harper’s Magazine profile turns mobster John Gotti’s hair into a psychiatric evaluation:
“Each bluish-gray streak was brushed back and up to make the entire head of hair perfect, arranged, untouchable — a head of stone, suggestive of control and power. He could butt your face with it. … The hair shows it all. Gotti is making myth of himself. He presents himself to jury and press as a human become statue, looming in stature, a temple god south of Rome somewhere.”
How can you find the details that will illuminate your subject?
Find meaningful specifics.
Here are three ways to find telling details:
1. Be there. Hang up the phone, back away from the keyboard and go to the scene to observe. You won’t come up with good description if you never leave your desk.
“I learn by going where I have to go,” wrote American poet Theodore Roethke.
- Interview subject matter experts in their natural habitat.
- Take a field trip.
- Go on more tours and demonstrations.
“Place can provoke new information, funny stories, and great dialogue,” suggests Jeff Klinkenberg, author of Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators and other narrative nonfiction books about Florida. “The way people talk, and what they talk about, is influenced by their surroundings. They may whisper in church, shout on the basketball court, talk nonsense after a couple of tall boys. Or they may chat about something remarkable they’ve just seen, something important.
“When you interview somebody at home, ask for a tour. Every picture, every book, every piece of furniture, can tell a story.”
2. Tune into your five senses. “The question is not what you look at, but what you see,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in an 1851 journal.
And don’t just see, counsels Kevin McGrath, assistant metro editor/nights at The Wichita Eagle: Capture “not just sights but sounds, smells, actions, reactions, interactions, bits of conversation, facial expressions, posture, clothing and the state it’s in (crisply pressed, badly wrinkled, sweaty, dirty, raggedy, shirttails hanging out etc.), how things look in relation to their surroundings, etc.”
As you observe, look for all kinds of color.
“Does a clock on the wall of a high-powered executive tick-tock relentlessly, like a metronome for his pressure-packed career?” prompts David A. Fryxell, former editor of Writer’s Digest. “Do the floors of the manufacturing magnate’s office tremble with the distant pulse of the factory floor? Does the home smell of freshly baked bread, the production plant of ozone, the farm of recently spread manure?”
3. Take more notes than you use. You can always toss out whatever doesn’t make it into your piece. Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative nonfiction journalist John McPhee, for instance, might take 10,000 pages of notes for a single book.
And don’t just write down what your subject says, Fryxell suggests. Note his looks and mannerisms too.
“Do his eyebrows twitch like frenzied caterpillars when he talks?” he prompts. “What’s he wearing? Anything sticking out of his shirt pocket?”
These details will help you reveal character, illustrate larger values and support the meaning of the story.
Make Your Copy More Creative.
Want to use creative copy to communicate better?
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team to handle a creative writing or editing project.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a “Make Your Copy More Creative” workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to Make Your Copy More Creative in one-on-one writing coaching. Or find out about Ann’s next Art of the Storyteller webinar.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s learning tools on storytelling, metaphor and human interest. And get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
- Join the club: Get the whole story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. Find dozens of creative copywriting tipsheets at RevUpReadership.com.
Sources: David A. Fryxell, “The Observation Occupation,” Writer’s Digest, October 1997
Lauren Kessler, “The Search for Meaning,” Writer’s Digest, April 1998
Jeff Klinkenberg, “Writing About Place: The Boundaries of a Story,” St. Petersburg Times, January 1995
Kevin McGrath, “Scene-setting moments,” WriterL
“If the story is about the dangers of salmonella in tomatoes in California, by golly, the headline probably needs to have ‘California,’ ‘bacteria’ and ‘tomatoes’ in it. Maybe ‘salmonella,’ too.”
Sara Dickenson Quinn, visual journalism teacher, The Poynter Institute
Write Web heads that attract Google — and real readers
“If there is a choice between boring and useless, I suggest going for boring.”
— Steffen Fjaervik, contributing writer for Poynter Online
There’s a lot of sniveling and squawking going on in the Web writing community these days. Consider the headlines:
- “This Boring Headline Is Written for Google,” grumble journalists.
- “Google doesn’t laugh,” moan headline writers.
- “Witty headlines: Black and white and dead all over,” kvetch communicators.
What’s all the bellyaching about?
The fact that feature headlines don’t work so well online. Sad, but true: When it comes to writing headlines for the Web, it’s more important to be clear than clever.
Write for indexes.
Today, I saw this New York Times headline on my Twitter for iPhone app:
The content page made clear — with a “Television” section head, a picture of John Walsh and a cutline — that the story was about the future of “America’s Most Wanted.” But without that context, the headline alone did not.
How does your headline work on your iPhone?
Web heads migrate.
Online, you never know where your headline will show up. That’s because microcontent moves — from your content page to, among other places:
- Search engine results pages (SERPs)
- Indexes on your own website and others’
- Twitter, Facebook and other social networks
- RSS feeds
- Google News, Yahoo! News and other news portals
- Mobile apps and screens
That means your Web head has to stand on its own. Will readers understand it without the art, display copy and other context of the content page?
Write Web heads that stand alone.
I love clever, cryptic headlines in print. But they don’t work online.
If your headline is “On the move,” for instance, readers might not be able to figure out whether your page is about:
- Employee promotions
- Relocation benefits
- The new headquarters building
If they can’t tell, chances are, they won’t click.
To get clicked, write Web heads that are clear and explanatory. Clearly state what’s on the page.
Cut the fluff.
Are your headlines clear or cryptic? Sometimes I can’t tell what Seth Godin’s posts, for instance, are about when I’m scanning my feeds:
- “An end of magic”
- “What (people) want”
- “Share your confusions”
- “How long is your long run?”
The point is to communicate, not to intrigue. So strive for clarity instead of creativity. Tell, don’t tease.
Good Web heads are clear no matter where they show up, in or out of context.
Reach readers online.
Want to master the art of writing for the Web?
- Get it off your desk: Bring Ann’s team in to write Web copy for your organization.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Web writing workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to polish your Web writing skills with one-on-one writing coaching sessions. And find out about Ann’s upcoming webinars on writing for the Web and social media.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s Web writing learning tools. And get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
- Join the club: Get the whole story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. And find dozens of tipsheets on reaching readers online at RevUpReadership.com.
Sources: Arthur S. Brisbane, “Glimpses of Online Journalism, From Inside and Out,” The New York Times, Dec. 25, 2010
Steffen Fjaervik, “Headlines: Boring Is Better than Useless,” PoynterOnline, April 10, 2006
Steffen Fjaervik, “Please, Please, Please Write Informative Headlines,” PoynterOnline, Jan. 21, 2005
“Only two things will survive global warming: cockroaches and boilerplates.”
Ann Wylie, writing coach, Wylie Communications
Explain ‘About us’ in your boilerplate
Boilerplates: Can’t live without ’em, can’t get a decent one through approvals.
A boilerplate is the short “About us” paragraph at the end of your releases that describes your organization.
It’s the boilerplate’s ubiquitousness that makes it important. Your boilerplate gets used over and over again. Depending on the scope and reach of your media relations efforts, your boilerplate could be posted and published thousands and thousands of times — and read by millions and millions of people.
Some PR pros argue that that makes the boilerplate the most important paragraph in your organization.
The problem is, too many PR boilerplates are far too long, too broad and too fluffy to be very useful.
Include just the facts, ma’am.
What goes into a good boilerplate?
To decide, think like a reader. Ask, “What would a journalist or blogger need to know to define my company in an article or post?”
For the most part, you’ll want to stick to the 5 W’s. You might want to include:
WHOM you help. AllianceBernstein’s boilerplate, for instance, says, “For over 40 years, AllianceBernstein Investments, Inc., … has helped investors …”
WHAT you make or do. AllianceBernstein: ” … by providing innovative investment solutions from a diverse line of investment vehicles including mutual funds, college savings (529) plans, retirement products and separately managed accounts.”
WHERE you’re located. Olympic Paints and Stains, for instance, mentions that the company is based in Pittsburgh.
WHERE readers can find you online. Create inbound links for your website. To optimize your boilerplate for news portals:
- Link your company name to your home page
- Include the URL in parentheses after your company name
Learn more about why this approach works.
WHY you’re an industry leader. Don’t just call yourself a leader. Deliver a compelling proof point.
Rosetta Stone’s boilerplate, for instance, says, “Teaching 29 languages to millions of people over 150 countries …” and “For the second year in a row, Fairfield Language Technologies is one of the fastest growing technology companies in Virginia as ranked by Deloitte and Touche.”
And Tellabs’ boilerplate offers this proof point: “… 43 of the top 50 global communications service providers choose our mobile, optical, business and services solutions.”
Other details to consider. You might also include:
- Your stock ticker symbol, if applicable.
- The year you were founded, if notable. American Express, for instance, notes that it was founded in 1850. Wylie Communications, on the other hand, doesn’t mention that it was founded in 1996.
- Your size in annual revenues; assets under management; number of employees, clients, members, outlets or products sold; or other measures that makes sense for your organization.
Reach bloggers, journalists and readers.
Want to deliver successful media relations pieces?
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team to handle a PR writing or editing project.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a PR writing workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to improve your PR writing skills in one-on-one writing coaching. Or find out about Ann’s next Anatomy of a News Release 2.0 webinar.
- Learn more: Study Ann’s Anatomy of a Release, Pitch and E-mailed Release toolkit. And get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
- Join the club: Get the full story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. And find dozens of advanced PR writing tipsheets on RevUpReadership.com.
“A magazine is real:
You can start a fire with a magazine.”
John Gerstner, ABC, president of Communitelligence, Inc.
Magazines dominate usage 85% of the time
You might talk on the phone while reading online, but when you read a magazine, you read a magazine.
Print is more engaging than TV, radio and the Web, according to researchers at Ball State University.
Electronic media — the Internet, TV and radio — garner a greater share of the time people spend with media. But people often treat those media as background noise, researchers found. They drive and text while listening to the radio, for instance, or eat and chat while watching TV.
Magazines: the unsocial media channel
But 85 percent of the time, when people read magazines, they don’t do anything else. That places magazines on top of the list of media channels with the greatest share of primary usage. The Web comes in last; people use it as their primary medium less than half the time.
Do you take advantage of all of your media options when planning your communications?
Plan powerful communications.
Want to master the art of effective communication planning?
- Get expert advice: Bring Ann in to help you adopt a strategic editorial approach.
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team to handle a write or edit copy that helps your organization achieve its business objectives.
- Boost your own skills: Work with Ann to improve your strategic writing skills in one-on-one writing coaching.
- Learn more: Study Ann’s communication planning learning tools. And get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
- Join the club: Get the full story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. And find dozens of communication planning tipsheets on RevUpReadership.com.
Source: Joe Mandese, ”Study Cracks Code, Finds Print May Be More Engaging Than TV, Radio, Web,” Media Daily News, Jan. 27, 2006
Rev Up Readership is “like having your own personal communications mentor.”
Lori Walker, communications manager, Sprint
Polish your skills for less than the price of a pizza
Now you can get all the tools you need to write better, easier and faster — for less than the price of a good pizza each month.
If you like this e-zine, you’ll love Rev Up Readership — our monthly newsletter that’s brimming with writing tools and tipsheets. It’s like a half-day writing workshop delivered to your e-mail inbox each month.
Now you can get a year’s subscription for just $17 a month.
In addition to the newsletter, Gold members have access to more than 2,000 tipsheets packed with:
- Tips, tricks and techniques for improving your writing. (These are how-to’s — not just what-to’s)
- Updates on current communication research that will help you stay up-to-date in your writing and sell your approaches to your approvers
- Award-winning communications to model
Plus, Gold members get Visual Thesaurus, the “remarkably inventive and interactive way to explore language” (PC magazine). Use it to find just the right word, create a great twist of phrase or write the perfect headline.
Now you can get all the tools in the RevUpReadership.com toolbox for just $25 — less than the price of a new hardback book — a month.
“We use you as a verb now in our daily conversations. We ‘Ann Wylie’ things now! It’s not uncommon to hear things like ‘I Ann Wylied this story,’ or ‘Let’s Ann Wylie this one up and add a callout to make it better.’”
Joyce Kirtley, supervisor, Corporate Communications, Devon Energy Corporation
Polish your skills at one of these events
Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations. But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:
- Chicago on June 7. “The Biggest Loser: Drop 3 pounds of fat from your copy in just 1 hour” and “HEY! Grab Attention In the Age of Information Overload,” two breakout sessions for Ragan’s Corporate Communicators Conference
- Nashville, Tenn., on Oct. 11. “Think Like a Reader,” a half-day session for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Nashville
- New Orleans on July 24. “Make Your Copy More Creative,” a series of breakout sessions for the Agricultural Media Summit
- New York on Nov. 4. “Writing That Sells,” a full-day workshop for PRSA
- Louisville, Ky., on Oct. 28. “Writing for the Web,” a breakout session at the Ragan Corporate Writers & Editors Conference
- New York on Nov. 9. “Writing for the Web,” a breakout session at the Ragan Corporate Writers & Editors Conference
- Orlando on Oct. 16-17. “Writing for the Web” and “Think Like a Reader,” a pre-conference and breakout session for the PRSA International Conference
Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.
Can’t make these events? If you’d like to bring me in for a workshop at your organization, contact me.
Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program
Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.
Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:
- Baltimore: Oct. 25
- Boston: June 23
- Chicago: June 7
- Cincinnati: Oct. 27
- Columbia, Md.: Nov. 16
- Istanbul: Sept. 17-Oct. 2
- Louisville, Ky.: Oct. 28
- Nashville, Tenn.: Oct. 11
- New Orleans: July 24
- New York City: Nov. 4-9
- Orlando: Oct. 16-17
- Portland, Ore.: Aug. 1-30
- Washington, D.C.: June 14-15, Nov. 15-16
Save even more: Ask about my communication association discounts and second-day fee reductions.
Contact me to discuss piggybacking.
The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:
- Writing and editing magazine, newsletter and executive communications copy for Saint Luke’s Health System, Cassidian and Carnegie-Mellon University
- Presenting writing workshops for Geisinger Health System, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA)
- Presenting webinars for PRSA
Find out when I’m coming to your neighborhood, learn when you can sign up for one of my programs and otherwise keep up with my calendar.